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Paris, Final Thoughts

September 12, 2009

As I am headed home, I can’t suppress a touch of nostalgia. I leave this city invariably enriched. Perhaps it’s because here there are no cell phones ringing in restaurants, no shoulders hunched over Blackberries although technology is as widely available and used as it is in the U.S. but kept in its place. Instead, people are enjoying the last of the fading summer sun, watching the passing crowd from a strategic perch at their favorite sidewalk cafe, taking their time having a leisurely drink alone or with friends. Life, they seem to convey, is too short to be missed.

For a dose of cultural nurturing, I headed for a retrospective at the Musee des Arts & Decoratifs featuring Madeleine Vionnet. A couturier not as adapt as Chanel at getting attention, she was nevertheless as important but often overshadowed by her more agile competitor. Vionnet’s clothes liberated women and freed them from bones or padding, adopting instead comfort. She integrated movement in fluid forms of chiffon, crepe de chine and gabardine. She was the first to use the bias cut which remains a pervasive influence, and she used it to full advantage in creating architectural shapes for the body.

Her handkerchief hem dresses were revolutionary as were the cowl necks and halter tops which clung to the body and moved with the wearer. The use of fringe and three-dimensional appliqués are still with us as her timeless style continues to inform contemporary fashion.

Vionnet’s career spanned the years 1912-1935, but a measure of her relevance is that her clothes look as current now as they did then. She followed two important convictions: "Taste," she said, "is a feeling that makes all the difference between what is beautiful and what is showy," and she believed that "a couturier dresses human beings, not dreams".

Both seem to have been lost in today’s aggressive pursuit of market share and profits wrung from brand dilution. What has also been lost is the sheer skill of techniques and an unwavering commitment to quality that made such extraordinary clothes possible.  

What we are left with are watered down reflections to create the illusion of design integrity and brand quality at a price known as "affordable luxury," an oxymoron if there ever was one. As Diane Vreeland once famously said: "When fashion comes to the masses, it’s no longer fashion." 

P.S. A travel afterthought: The next time you think you have run into a grumpy Parisian, try to remember if you greeted him or her appropriately before approaching with a question. I learned my lesson from a bus driver I tried to ask for directions. Each time I started with "Excuse moi, monsieur…" he would interrupt to say "Bonjour, Madame.” It took until the third time that I got the message. He wanted his "Bonjour" before he would answer. I complied. Just to let him know that I had understood, when I reached my destination, I left the bus through the front entrance and said "Au Revoir, Monsieur.” He grinned and waved me on.

Au revoir, Paris.